Un-doing awareness: do smart watches make dumb humans?
Analysis for The Conversation by Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, Associate Professor, Design Anthropology, Swinburne University of Technology
I think I have successfully talked my partner out of getting an Apple Watch. I generally do not interfere with his purchase decisions, but the description of the Apple Watch’s features, or those of any other smart watch, fails to offer more than what one currently available on any smartphone. The Apple Watch promises:
In conjunction with your iPhone, it keeps time within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard […] add a physical dimension to alerts and notifications. For example, you’ll feel a gentle tap with each incoming message […] gives you a complete picture of your all-day activity.
The main advantage promised by smart watches is that you can stare at your wrist to receive notifications, instead of having to take out your smartphone. For some people, the inconvenience of taking out your smart phone is worth $99 to $799 retail price. But is it worth the actual environmental and potential social negative impacts just to wear this additional technology on your wrist?
In the past five years, the Conversation has published more than 35 articles about smart watches and other wearable technologies. David Glance in his Technophrenia column has written some of the best of them.
The Conversation scholars have raised the questions:
One of my favourites is Professor Andre Spicer’s article on how smart watches might make us more self-obsessed.
As a design anthropologist, I am more concerned with how digital monitoring leads to human dependency on sensing technologies that tell us things that our bodies, including the mind, are already well designed to monitor. A sub-concern is that these technologies are driven by the desire for corporations to commercialise the data gathered for profit. Adult Swim has a parody called Smart Pipe that highlights the issues.
Smart Pipe parody of sensing technology, bodily functions, and private commercialisation.
Based on John Patterson’s original lectures, I give each week a lecture on the senses (i.e. sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and kinaesthesia) from the biological perspective of nature and the cultural perspective of nurture. Instead of nature versus nurture, the class emphasises how nature is nurture and vice versa.
One of the most important things students learn in the class is how the human body is able to receive millions of sensory inputs, transform them into basic electrical impulses, and then process those impulses so they are perceived as feelings, poetry, or music in ways that science does not fully understand.
Slide from Multi-sensory Design class. Image credit: Elizabeth Tunstall.
Our bodies already monitor our heartbeats, tell us when we are not getting enough exercise, reinforce the pleasure of communicating with people we love, remind us when we are getting too much sun, and perform slew of other features. They do so without needing to be plugged into a socket, sell the information to a corporation, or generate more techno-waste in African countries.
I have a heart arrhythmia. For years, I have had to monitor my heartbeat for stress to avoid going into a flutter or fainting spell. My smartphone’s heart monitor fails every time to read my heartbeat because of the arrhythmia. So, I rely upon the features inherent in my body, such as rapid heartbeat, slight dizziness, or shallow breathing to remind me to relax, slow down, and do deep breathing to control my heart rate.
After 15 years of practising Tai Chi Chuan, I have a fine-tuned body monitoring and regulation process because it promotes holistic body awareness.
One aspect of the social value of technologies is that they augment human weaknesses. I have described this in my chair and vase articles as Victor Papanek’s Triad of Limitations, in which designs must help human beings overcome the limitations of biology, habitat, and mortality.
Victor Papanek’s Triad of Limitations. Image credit: Elizabeth Tunstall.
But there is a difference between technologies that seek to augment versus those that seek to replicate or replace human processes. For example, airplanes augment human weakness, as we have no wings to fly. But smart watches seem to be doing the latter, perhaps to our detriment.
Andre Spicer warns us against the constant distractions of being tapped all day long by smart watch messages. Writer Nicholas Carr in a 2010 WSJ article based on his book The Shallows states about the internet:
But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.
Might the sensing and monitoring technologies in our smart watches turn us into superficial bodily sensors as well?
By asking my partner to not purchase the Apple Watch, I hope to keep him aware of his body without the need of a sensing technology. But I’ll have to wait until next week to find out if my article was persuasive.